I had a ShopVac panic attack on Wednesday.
It was after we looked at the property on Hardy Street in Watertown. During the walkthrough, the current resident cheerfully explained that we could add a kitchen vent by hooking it into the bathroom vent if we wanted to, and suggested that we put in a drainage something in the back yard before the hockey-playing family of five upstairs finished converting the deck into a garage, and pointed out the prizewinning fish he had mounted in the sun porch...and suddenly I could see my future grinding out in the lyrics of Jonathan Coulton's Shop Vac. Puttering passive-aggressively in my basement workshop, waving at the neighbors on their riding lawnmowers before they leave to pick up the kids from hockey in their SUVs, buying a driveway and a swingset and a dog. (The dog would be okay.) We'd already — this is true — checked out the gourmet grocery store, and seen the Starbucks on the corner (that's better than the other one), and it's loud with the ShopVac on....
There are people who love that life. More power to them, but contemplating it makes me feel like someone's making a fist behind my sternum. I freaked out a little in the car. Then I came home and read a chapter in David Byrne's How Music Works called "How to Make a Scene," about creative serendipity, and a location shaping what happens in it, and how he and Tina and Chris lived in an unheated loft across the street from the fledgling CBGB as they were in the process of becoming Talking Heads. I started to think about what I was privileging in my choice of home. Would anything in the environment in Watertown challenge me, confront me, or would I be slipping into a comfortably bland lifestyle? Would that change me? Does the water in the bottle become the bottle? Was I being unfair to Watertown?
To answer the last question, I did some research on the web, and was not heartened. I looked at Watertown Open Studios...and the first piece in their sample gallery was a clay bust of George H.W. Bush. I tried Googling [watertown the next hip]...and got a page of locations for hip surgery. There's no deep significance there, okay, but if I believed in omens it's not a good one! I have a lot more experience with Somerville, and feel tuned in to the vibe there — Somerville Open Studios and Honk! and Porchfest, rainbow mohawks biking down the street. Does Watertown have another side I haven't seen? (I think it's called Waltham — but that's too far west.) If it doesn't, does it matter? I could bike to Davis and Diesel whenever I want to, just like I do now; Brighton isn't exactly Greenwich Village either.
It turns out that these mirror thoughts adfamiliares has been having (another reason I love my wife). We've been ignoring Somerville because it would mean a longer commute to BC for her, but she's coming around to the idea of trading commute time for a more vibrant neighborhood. That said, we might still end up in Watertown, but I'm told there are parts (between Arsenal and Mount Auburn) that are less suburban, more Cambridge-lite. And if we live in the "suburbs", so what? We'll still be us; I'll still wear my kilt and my centipede scarf around the neighborhood. Rebelling against whitebread American Beauty conformity, real or imagined, might be fun. And I'll be closer to my other environmental muse, the great outdoors — Mount Auburn Cemetery and Assabet and Great Meadows in Lexington would all be a few miles closer by bike.
Another lesson from "How to Make a Scene" is that you can't predict where creative synergy will arise. You can do things to make it more likely, but sometimes living in squalor just means you'll keep living in squalor: you have to get lucky to get a CBGB across the street. But if you wait until a scene is happening and move in on it with your middle-class money, you're contributing to gentrification and helping to guarantee that those young Talking Heads and starving artists won't be able to afford the rents. (In Somerville, that process is probably well enough along that we wouldn't make a difference.) Really, it's up to creative people to find ways to engage themselves wherever they are (Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull, etc. etc.). I can make a scene, even if it's a scene for one.Anyway, giving the neighbors something to be talk about is an important job.